Oncologists Discover Air Pollution Activates Lung Cancer Cells

Oncologists Discover Air Pollution Activates Lung Cancer Cells

Last weekend, scientists presented research linking lung cancer cases in non-smokers to air pollution at the European Society for Medical Oncology conference in Paris. One study, conducted by the Francis Crick Institute, found car fumes contain fine particles known as PM2.5, which can activate dormant mutations in lung cells that become cancerous. While smoking is still the leading cause of lung cancer, more people worldwide are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution than toxic cigarette smoke.

Francis Crick Institute: Researchers discuss link between air pollution and lung cancer, September 13, 2022.

Why This Matters

Globally, air pollution is one of the leading causes of premature death in people and has been linked to decreased life expectancy in places with high PM2.5 particle levels. In 2019 alone, nine million deaths were attributed to air pollution, making it the deadliest form of pollution on the planet. Contaminated oxygen was also found to increase the risk of dementia and other diseases, such as asthma and lung disease, which will add strain to already-taxed healthcare systems struggling in the aftermath of the pandemic.

As put by Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, the mother of a nine-year-old whose death was attributed to illegal levels of air pollution, “My concern regarding global health is that every year we churn out the figures -- air pollution causes nine million premature deaths -- but no one is held accountable.”

NBC: New Study Finds Pollution Caused Nearly Nine Million Deaths Worldwide In 2019, May 18, 2022.

CNBC: Why Air Quality In The US Is So Bad, April 22, 2021.

Reuters: Air pollution cuts life expectancy by more than two years, June 15, 2022.

The Single Biggest Health Threat

After a temporary decline during the global pandemic, carbon emissions are back on the rise with a record carbon dioxide concentration of 421 ppm -- the highest level in at least 4 million years. Carbon emissions are contributing to a growing global health emergency projected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths and cost the health industry $2 to 4 billion annually.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls climate change the “single biggest health threat facing humanity,” and warns the world must keep global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees C to avoid “catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths.”

Reuters: World could see 1.5C of warming in next five years, May 10, 2022.

While no one is safe from the detrimental health effects of climate change, including air pollution, people of color, women, children, migrants, minorities, disadvantaged communities and countries, and low-income families are disproportionately impacted. A recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) showed black seniors are more likely to die from poor air quality implications than their white counterparts.

Around that same time, EPA Administrator Michael Regan indicated that environmental justice would be kept in mind as the agency reviewed long-neglected clean air standards. “The most vulnerable among us are most at risk from exposure to particulate matter, and that’s why it’s so important we take a hard look at these standards that haven’t been updated in nine years,” he said in a statement.

EuroNews: Air pollution has a more devastating effect on life expectancy than smoking and war, September 7, 2021.

MSNBC: New EPA Plan Cracks Down On Pollution In Communities Of Color, January 27, 2022.

TED: End fossil fuels to protect human health | Carolyn Orr, March 1, 2022.

UNEP: How to claim your right for clean air, March 24, 2021.

DW: Air pollution and what can be done to reduce it, June 6, 2022.